CX Science: insincere flattery works
Explicitly, we, consumers, recognize all too well when a company is flattering us.
Implicitly, we can't help but have a more positive attitude towards it even when acknowledging for the ulterior motive.
This positive affect works with some delay - our immediate choice is not impacted by flattery, but our future choices are.
As this is a controversial topic, I will forebear from advising on this and will leave it at the description of this effect.
We think it, but we don't know we are thinking it
Broadly, there are two types of attitudes every one of us holds: explicit and implicit ones.
The explicit ones are much easier to recognize. By definition, these are the attitudes we are aware of and can share explicitly with others.
Implicit attitudes on the other hand are automatic, and we are often not aware of their existence. These are the attitudes we don't know we have.
Amazingly, we can actually hold different explicit and implicit attitudes towards the same object. Even when we change our attitude towards something, the updated explicit attitude may not always override the implicit one. This is most easy to see in situations in which we resort to our default mode - think time pressure or stress, for example; in these cases it is likely that our implicit attitude will guide our actions, rather than our explicit one.
Now, often when people flatter us, they have an ulterior motive. Think about the store rep giving us a compliment about the way we look, for example. It is not hard to see beyond the flattery and recognize the interest the rep has in making us feel good about ourselves.
Does flattery still works when we know there is an ulterior motive?
"You are flattering me and I know it, but I can't help it."
Elaine Chan and Jaideep Sengupta did a thorough research on the topic and published this insightful article in the Journal of Marketing Research. What did they find?
Most fascinatingly, even though we recognize the motive and explicitly discount the flattery, it still moves us. The reason is that "The associative learning system, which underlies implicit attitudes, is not concerned with assessing the truth value of incoming information; accordingly, when an association is formed, it tends to be relatively inflexible to new information." *.
In a nutshell, the cognitive system that works to form implicit attitudes couldn't care less if the information is true or not.
As a result, even insincere flattery makes us more positive towards the person or company offering it. In one of Chan and Sengupat's experiments, for example, people's implicit attitudes towards a store offering a flattery were significantly higher compared to their explicit ones. So not only were participant's attitudes more positive after a flattery, but they didn't even recognize this effect.
Amazingly, while explicit attitudes were a better predictor of purchase intention measured immediately after the flatter, implicit ones predicted delayed purchase intention much better. Insincere flattery works stealthily and while not immediately effective, it shifts our attitude in a positive direction in the long-term.
Now, I don't want to advise you to be insincere with your customers - that would be a very cynical thing to do. It is important though to know that such an interesting effect exists. If nothing else, it might make us a bit more resistant to such attempts.
My best wishes for a great day ahead!